Wednesday 30 March 2016

Cabinet of Curiosities: a letter from Vincent - by Sue Purkiss

It's lovely at this time of year, isn't it? - when primroses, daffodils and hyacinths are out, and the buds on winter-bare trees begin to break into blossom. My mother was a very keen gardener, but she never thought that almond and cherry trees were worth their space in the garden - "After all," she reasoned, "they're in blossom for such a short time, and the rest of the the year, they do nothing."

But I don't agree with her. Because for that short time, they are intensely beautiful. Beauty is often fleeting, but perhaps that's all the more reason to value it. And beauty at such a time - at the end of winter - represents new life and hope: it lifts the heart.

A hundred and twenty six years ago, a 37 year old man had a piece of good news. In many ways, he had had a difficult and rather sad life. He did not always get on easily with people; he had tried his hand at being an art dealer, and then a preacher, but things always went wrong: his emotions were too intense, he would put people off, and then feel hurt and bewildered when they rejected him. The one person who always stood by him was his brother Theo.

For some years now, he had decided to be an artist - but so far, he had had no commercial success, though other artists were beginning to recognise his ability. Recently, he had entered enthusiastically into a working partnership with a certain Paul Gauguin; it had all begun so very well, but it had ended so very, very badly. In the end, he had become so frantic, so unstable, that he had tried to cut off his own ear.

His name, of course, was Vincent Van Gogh.

In 1889, after the ear episode, he voluntarily committed himself to the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in Saint Remy. As he became calmer, he painted: at first the garden of the asylum and vases of flowers which he could work on inside, then the surrounding orchards and countryside. The rate at which he worked was astonishing.

Then, in February 1890, he received the piece of good news that I mentioned earlier. It was that Theo's wife Jo had given birth to a baby boy - their first, and as it turned out, only child. Vincent was so happy for them that he wanted to paint something - a gift, to celebrate the birth. St Remy is in Provence, in the south of France: perhaps, that year, there was a warm day in February - the kind of day that is itself a gift, a promise of spring to come. And perhaps the good news, for a while at least, drove away his demons, and he went out into the orchard, threw himself down on the ground, his hands clasped behind his head, gazed up at the blue sky through the branches of a flowering almond tree, and smiled.

And then he painted what he had seen, and sent the picture to Theo and Jo, who hung it in their baby's room. Jo wrote back a warm letter of thanks, in which she said that the baby - whom they called Vincent Willem - was a great admirer already of his uncle's works, and that he particularly liked to lie and look up at the sky-blue painting.

Well, Vincent's story did not, as we know, end happily. A few months later, he shot himself, and died two days later with Theo at his side. Theo survived him by less than a year.

But here is a happy ending of sorts. Jo took great care of Vincent's artistic legacy, and later, her son took over, and played a large part many years later in establishing a museum devoted to his uncle's work in Amsterdam. I was there this time last year, and was bowled over by Vincent's paintings - by the clarity and brilliance of the colours, by their energy and zest for life.

I don't want to put the painting into our cabinet of curiosities. It belongs where it is, where thousands of people see it every year. But I would like to put into it the letter in which Vincent wrote to his sister describing the painting he had begun for his new nephew. He doesn't say very much about it - you can see the letter here. (All Van Gogh's correspondence has been made accessible online by the Van Gogh Museum.)

For me, the letter is a direct link with the man, the artist. But it also represents hope: it says that despite his mental anguish, there was a moment when he had an impulse of pure joy, which he was able to translate onto canvas. He seized the fleeting moment and made of it something permanent. Isn't that what we'd all like to do?


Carol Drinkwater said...

Lovely post, Sue.
For those of us living close to the Mediterranean, the almond is the herald of spring. It flowers before any other and is the first pollen for the honeybees as they come out from their hives after winter. It is a flower of hope and, although delicate in colour and fleeting, it reminds us that Nature is regenerative. We are preparing a newly-purchased plot of land here to plant up as an almond grove in memory of my recently-deceased mother. Pale pink was her favourite colour and she was always so happy when the spring sun began to shine.

Unknown said...

Absolutely loved this post, Sue. And only this morning I was looking at my beautiful little cherry tree that is just coming into flower. A promise of spring, as you say, and a reminder of the beauty of life.

Katherine Langrish said...

How lovely, Sue! I adore that painting.

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks, everyone! Carol - what a lovely idea, to plant an almond grove in memory of your mother!

Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for this, Sue - just lovely!

Unknown said...

I loved this - thank you for the glimpse of Van Gogh spring magic and reminding me that, in spite of the rain and wind, spring really is upon us.